The U.S. State Department today reacted to a decision by a Bahraini judge not to release activist Nabeel Rajab from custody and to adjourn his case until October 29. Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said the U.S. government did
"not agree with the prosecution of individuals for crimes of peaceful political expression and again urge the government of Bahrain to drop the charges and release Mr. [Nabeel] Rajab. Obviously we believe he has the right to freedom of expression -- it doesn't mean we agree with everything he tweeted but certainly agree he has the right to do it."
Last week the State Department publicly called for the charges against Rajab to be dropped for the first time. Rajab, one of the region's most prominent human rights defenders and president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested earlier this month after tweeting about Bahrain security forces being incubators for the ideology of ISIS.
The U.S. government's call indicates a shift in position; it has been reluctant to publicly call for similarly trumped-up charges against Rajab to be dropped in the past. Rajab spent two years in prison from mid-2012 to mid-2014 for previous tweets. The State Department's new call -- echoed on Twitter by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power -- is a significant change.
Although military ties between the United States and Bahrain have been strong for many years, and Bahrain is part of the new anti-ISIS coalition, some Washington officials are frustrated with their ally, which in the last few months has expelled senior State Department official Tom Malinowski from Bahrain after he met with peaceful opposition figures, denied entry to U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA), and has opened new ties with the Kremlin just as the United States is trying to isolate the Russian government for its aggression towards Ukraine. Last week the Bahrain king visited president Putin in Russia and invited him to visit the island kingdom.
The State Department has also spoken out about the targeting of activist Zainab al Khawaja, who faces a slew of cases related to her protests, including charges for tearing up pictures of the king of Bahrain, insulting a prison officer while jailed last year, and entering a restricted area while trying to visit her father in prison in August of this year. She is currently held at the Isa Town detention center and today was reportedly taken to the public prosecutor's office in relation to the charges entering a restricted area. Last week U.S. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said:
"We've seen reports of Ms. Khawaja's arrest and detention. We're following the case closely, and as in any countries, we call on -- any country, we call on Bahrain to ensure equal treatment under the law and to advance justice in a fair way. We again urge the Government of Bahrain to take steps to build confidence across Bahraini society and to create an environment conducive to dialogue."
Today Harf repeated those calls.
Bahrain's political crisis isn't getting any better. The largest opposition groups have said they will boycott parliamentary elections on for November 22. The United States has failed to find its voice in publicly criticizing Bahrain's human rights record over the last few years, which has hurt its credibility in Bahrain and across the region. But Washington is right to speak out about Rajab and al Khawaja and should now publicly state that the targeting of human rights defenders will not bring stability to Bahrain, that the United States will continue to name individual cases publicly, and that there will be consequences to the U.S.-Bahraini relationship unless the abuses stop.